Review: 'A Star Is Born'

Thursday, October 4, 2018
A still from 'A Star Is Born'.

The Song Remains the Same

2018 / USA / 135 min. / Dir. by Bradley Cooper / Opens in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

by:
Joshua Ray

Not long into A Star is Born, it's become apparent that Bradley Cooper will be a real contender as a filmmaker. His visual influences are evident: Martin Scorsese’s gliding and orchestral tracking shots; Terrence Malick’s unencumbered camera with its awe-inspiring focus on people in their natural habitats; and the stoic classicism of Cooper's American Sniper (2014) director, Clint Eastwood, also an actor-turned-filmmaker. While such divergent aesthetic modes may seem at odds with one other, Cooper – who also stars and co-wrote A Star Is Born with Eric Roth – fuses their syntaxes into his own distinctive schema, revealing the director’s real interest: melodrama and its built-in ideas about identity and human behavior in extremis.

The traditionally feminine-associated melodrama informs all four previous versions of A Star is Born, but here it rubs shoulders with the more masculine drive of the aforementioned cinematic influences. In fact, Cooper’s version recalls a less precious and more relaxed version of Terrence Malick’s elegiac rock-and-roll feature Song to Song (2017) by way of the aesthetically lush and sociological astute “women’s pictures” of Douglas Sirk (e.g., Imitation of Life [1959]). This isn’t an inherently unworthy way of working through a story absorbed with the way people perform gender-associated qualities, but, by the film’s end, the director largely squanders the opportunity to express a fresh vision of a familiar story.

A shot early in the film encapsulates the thematic potential. Country singer/songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a gay bar on drag night. While he’s not entirely condescending to the patrons and performers of the bar – he's just looking for nightcap, after all – he’s still a good-ol’-boy mega-star in an outwardly queer communal space. After the electrifying Edith Piaf-impersonating performance of Ally (Lady Gaga), he easily ingratiates himself backstage in order to meet her, and eventually charms his way into a drink with her. While she readies herself, he does an impromptu unplugged performance for the queens (RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Willam Belli and D.J. 'Shangela' Pierce) in the now-closed bar. Maine stands left of frame, performing in the brightly-lit disco-themed bar to the offscreen queens, one of whom is reflected – seemingly staring directly at the viewer – in a mirror in the shot's background.

It’s the kind of gorgeously glittery and ironic tableaux that Sirk and his acolyte Rainer Werner Fassbinder so often constructed in their films. The cisgender man sings “Maybe It’s Time” – a song ostensibly about the cultural shift away from traditional norms – to a queer audience that the frame elides, while the compartmentalized reflection of the subversion of those norms stares directly at the film’s audience. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it act of confrontation, the shot’s irony ripples outward through the first half of Cooper’s Star, two acts of cinematic magnetism carried by the filmmaker’s ability to stir the audience’s emotions, while implicating them as a part of the system he criticizes. 

By using melodrama’s innate exploration of the ways in which people craft their identities, Cooper further elucidates the already-present themes about relational and public personas. Maine’s drug and alcohol addiction seems to stem from the gulf between his public self and the self he’s created from the disparate parts of his powerful, masculine older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliot), and their deceased father. Even Bobby recognizes this when he chastises Maine for adopting his trademark voice. Cooper – in a monumental but quiet turn that resembles the repressed anguish of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005) – has done exactly the same kind of vocal duplication in mimicking Elliot, adding a metatextual layer about the crafting of performance.

Ally’s physical appearance is the hindrance between the obviously talented singer/songwriter and true success. Maine imbues her with the confidence necessary for her destined breakout, to the point of almost fetishizing her nose, the feature she internalizes as her most conspicuous weakness. When Maine forces Ally onstage to sing the Oscar-bound “Shallow,” the director slyly nods to Maine’s own objectification of Ally, showing the male half of the duo staring up in awe at his partner’s face on the large screen behind them, rather than looking at her directly from just feet away. Maine later criticizes the Hollywood machine-crafted pop seductress persona Ally adopts, in a move that highlights his own idealized down-home version of her. 

In casting Lady Gaga as Maine’s female counterpoint, the director imports even more metatextual information. Ally’s father – Andrew Dice Clay in another supporting role as an aspirational blue-collar man, similar to his great turn in Blue Jasmine (2013) – discusses public image-making in the same manner as the industry people in the film's more obvious Hollywood-demonizing second half. The tastemakers want Ally to be platinum blonde – a Gaga trademark – but she opts for a neon orange hue instead. These scenes carry the weight of Gaga’s own self-heralded rise to fame, her transcendence of harmful beauty standards to become the “Mother Monster,” and her audience’s obsession with their own ideals of her. Onscreen, the luminous Gaga is acting light years beyond her leaden Golden Globe-winning turn in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015-16), but her eyes – and the film’s careful editing – still betray the novice actor’s seemingly paralyzing fear of the camera.

In adhering to a now 81-year-old narrative, Cooper’s film pivots towards more outwardly plotty material halfway through its running time. It thereby loses its near-mystical sheen, taking on the more traditional, plasticky tone of the Barbra Streisand-starring 1976 iteration, starkly opposed to the mournful fogginess of George Cukor’s 1954 version featuring Judy Garland. To this end, a Grammy Awards ceremony gone awry is embarrassingly mis-staged and a wasted opportunity to further the ideas of public performance from earlier in the film. Furthermore, the feature’s denigration of the pop genre is grossly old-fashioned, undermining its Gaga-borrowed musical ethos. 

Finally, as a portrait of codependency, this Star further falters due to the framing of Ally’s success as occurring concurrently with Maine’s downfall. Given that the film shifts largely to his point-of-view, it also asks the audience to sympathize with a man whose failures are dangerously equated with a woman’s success. Although this conceit is built into the fabric of the material, it’s nevertheless a problematic move that repurposes the entire film as an ode to “traditional,” heteronormative values. Its audience-rallying, tear-jerking finale therefore falls flat, made all the more disappointing by the film’s previous goodwill in mounting subversive acts that it ultimately ends up wasting. 

Rating: C+